Shift World Chapter 9
by Christopher W Gamsby
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Karp and Nort stood in front of the inn and discussed their next move after the Village of the Lion's Gate.
˝i need you to do something important for me.”
Nort perked up.
˝i'm going to the lumber depot and checking for information on the grain fort and looking around the general store. in the meantime, go to the village at the grain fort, check for information, and check on the store.”
Nort looked proud because he had never been asked to do anything so important. Karp grabbed his arm, and a small bundle appeared in her hand. She reached from under her cloak and handed it to him. He took the package and slung its leather strap over his shoulder.
˝this is a single-person tent that you can use on the side of the road. i don't want you to use it unless it's absolutely necessary. around nightfall, look for a nearby farmhouse, and offer them a few iron pieces to put you up for the night. i'm going to run to the lumber depot and meet you at the grain fort later. i'll sleep in the shift world, but you will still probably have a few days alone in the village even if you walk. you don't need to hurry.”
˝OK! See you in a few days.”
Karp pivoted and ran. She could run nearly at full speed without making a sound. She ran fast enough that chimes rang on a nearby pillar. To figure out how many days he would have at the Grain Fort, Nort silently counted on his fingers. When thinking became confusing, he spoke to himself.
˝Let's see, it will take her three days to get to the lumber depot. If she spends two days there, three days back here, and three days to the Grain Fort, that will give me four days at the village if I walk.”
People watched Nort as he stared at hands and mumbled to himself. Nort looked up the road, but Karp had already disappeared from view. He turned to leave, but someone put their hand on his shoulder. Nort stopped and turned to see the person who was touching him.
˝Don't forget your ax.”
Nort's gaze stopped at an ax leaning on a pillar near the end of the patio.
˝That's not mine; I don't know whose it is.”
The hand released. Nort saw a cloaked figure out of the corner of his eye. The man turned toward the inn's entrance.
˝Sorry about that.”
The man walked into the inn. Nort shuddered at the encounter but started up the road. In a few hours, farmland surrounded the way. He stopped next to an apple tree and bent over to smell a honeysuckle bush that grew at its base. He lowered his nose to the bush's red and orange flowers and breathed in the sweet aroma. The odor reminded him of cookies baking at the Traitor's Tavern Inn. A thump hit Nort's back, and something flew into the bush.
A bloody sparrow leaped out of the rustling bush. An open fracture along the edge of its wing stained the sparrow's rust-colored wings a more vibrant crimson. The bird fluttered around the ground. It stopped moving and took deep, slow breaths. Nort thought about what to do and finally reached down to pick it up. An arrow pierced the bird. Nort stood up straight and looked around but couldn't see anyone.
No answer came. Nort didn't understand why someone was hiding just because they killed a bird.
˝It's OK. The bird was dying; it's not like you did anything wrong.”
Still, no answer came. Nort assumed a child shot the bird and was then hiding in shame since that seemed like something a child would do. He continued up the road. The stench of manure told him that he had just passed a cattle grazing field. Although he wasn’t trying to get to the Village of the Grain Fort quickly, he ran to lose the manure smell. He ran for nearly an hour before realizing he had stepped in manure and that the scent wafted from his boot. Hooves stampeded down the road behind him. Nort turned to inspect the sound's source. A farmhand wearing a long riding cloak herded bovine, steering the stampede south along the road.
˝What a dangerous thing to do.”
The words just slipped out even though no one could hear him. Nort figured the man was embarrassed at losing control of his herd because when he saw Nort, he jumped off his horse, threw down his helmet, and kicked the dirt. Nort waved. The man regained himself, scooped up his helmet, jumped on his horse, and followed after the cows.
Nort continued up the road for another few hours, and the sun started setting. He walked to a nearby house and knocked on the door. A little old lady answered, her granddaughter clinging to the back of her knee.
˝I was wondering if I could stay the night. If you got the room...”
The request didn't surprise the gray-mane.
˝For five iron, you can spend the night in the barn.”
Nort reached in his coin purse, removed five small iron pieces, and gave them to the woman. She shooed the little girl inside and walked toward the barn. For a personal building, the barn was surprisingly large. Given its simple design and hollow interior, building the structure may not have cost very much. The untreated side panels matched the wood's natural shade, but a bright yellow paint lined the doors. Near the entrance, a round boulder sat halfway up to Nort's shin. The gray-mane pushed open the door with a great deal of effort. A bed sat in the building's corner.
˝I thought I was going to have to sleep on a pile of straw or something.”
Nort couldn't tell if she was joking.
˝You can use the bed.”
The woman laughed and strolled away. The moon had just risen, and Nort felt drained from being out in the sun all day. He removed his riding coat and paused at a slash across its back.
˝When did that happen?”
He flipped the cloak back and forth as though that would somehow answer the question. He removed his armor and covered it with his travel cloak in order to hide the precious metals from prying eyes. He lay on the bed and was soon fast asleep.
Someone crept to the barn door and quietly pulled it open. The man who Nort had seen earlier put an ax to the side, took off his riding cloak, and hung it on the handle. The man bent down and lifted the boulder sitting near the entrance. He laboriously trudged into the barn and stood before the bed with the stone suspended overhead. The man shouted.
Nort stirred in the small bed. Blood shot from the man's upper right arm, and the boulder slipped. The boulder crashed onto the man's back. He dropped to the ground with both legs and right arm limp. Nort jumped out of bed.
˝GET OUT OF HERE!”
Karp's words spurred Nort to flee toward the exit, but his shield caught on his foot. He picked it up and continued running. Karp rolled her whip. Nort had barely exited the door and run another twenty yards when the man started seizing.
˝who are you?”
The man coughed up blood.
He seized until his neck cracked, and then he was quiet. Karp waved Nort over. She turned the body onto its back with her foot. He was the man who had lost at the throwing board.
˝How did you make it to the lumber town already?”
˝obviously i didn't go... i knew we were being followed, and i decided if we split up, they would be more likely to chase you, so i doubled back after about thirty minutes and kept an eye on you.”
˝How did you know?”
˝well, it started when i saw that ax man with the travel cloak. he was too far along to be doing any logging, and if he were merely traveling, he wouldn't bring an ax with him. and if he were just some local person, he wouldn't have bothered wearing a cloak. it was good camouflage when we were near the milling town, but it made him stick out later. then i was pretty sure we were being followed when someone kept pacing on our floor and stopping at our doors. when did you figure it out? i was impressed that you foiled two attempts at your life like that.”
Nort mumbled to himself to try and stall while he figured out her meaning.
˝Maybe that's why that guy put his hand on my shoulder...”
˝oh, i see. they tried to kill you before, and so you were on to him. i was impressed by how you blocked that one arrow with the shield on your back and dodged the stampede. but how did you know he was going to try and run a stampede on you?”
Karp looked down and noticed Nort had his shield.
˝oh... you were going to jump up at the last minute and get him with your shield? very nice. maybe i shouldn't have interfered.”
In another six days, Karp and Nort arrived at the Village of the Grain Fort. The village gave them an ominous feeling, and each villager showed foreboding on their face. The villagers numbly carried out their routines as if they believed continuing their lives as nothing happened would keep the misfortune that loomed over them suspended a little longer. Some of The Lion's servants drank in the tavern all day and night, not understanding why their lord didn't ask their help in whatever maneuvers he planned.
Karp and Nort entered the packed general store. Luxury goods stuffed the showroom, just like the store in the Village of the Lion's Gate. This store, however, still had steel armor and weapons. Karp and Nort approached the storekeeper, who was busy checking inventory.
˝where did all this come from?”
The man jumped back and dropped his clipboard. He regained his composure and retrieved the clipboard and papers. He looked Karp and Nort over before speaking.
˝If you came through The Lion's Gate, then you already know! Why are you bothering to ask me?”
The man was way savvier than the owner from the other village had been.
˝were they not interested in the steel?”
The owner raised his eyebrow.
˝No. They just wanted the rare metals and food, and they were willing to pay for it.”
˝strange, they wanted everything from the other village.”
The store owner laughed.
˝They probably got what they wanted for a price they wanted and got all the steel the man owned for free.”
˝what did you end up trading for all this?”
˝A yellow helm, dagger, gauntlets, and a white short sword.”
˝sounds like he got the better deal...”
˝Not really. I took everything I could see of value; he took a lot of scraps.”
Karp was surprised by how bluntly the shopkeeper spoke. He was weakening his trading position by telling her everything, yet he seemed too shrewd to make that mistake.
˝Don't be so surprised. I could tell from the moment I saw you that you weren't going to buy anything, Scorpion.”
Karp wore her surprise on her sleeve. Nort put his hand on his mace and stepped between the owner and Karp.
˝Wow, down, boy! I'm no threat to you. You'd have to figure people knew you were coming after what happened last week!”
˝what happened last week?”
The man scoffed.
˝Well, a little old lady awoke to shouts and screams from her barn, so she went outside to see her porter standing in the field carrying a shield with a sun. A strange woman with a whip was in her barn standing over a crushed dead body. Plus, your hands gave you away. The only person I've seen with gloves like that was The Whitecoat, so it would stand to reason that you are The Whitecoat's apprentice, The Scorpion, and that you must be The Morning Shield.”
Nort's hand slid off his mace, and he closed his riding cloak again. The man breathed a sigh of relief.
˝Please don't tell anyone. Even if they heard rumors we were coming, we don't want them to know it's us...”
˝have you seen the fort? since it happened?”
˝No. Everyone around here stays away from the fort. Some of the old servants drinking in the tavern have seen the empty keep, but they will never go back...but, well, there is one person who will go back to the keep, for a price...”
˝how can we find them?”
˝He will probably be in the bar. He's a boisterous young man who likes drinking, throwing, and talking very, very loudly. Just go into the tavern and ask for a courier.”
Karp and Nort left the general store and crossed a wide road. They followed smaller streets and alleys until they reached the inn. The inn was only four stories tall but still loomed over the rest of the buildings. Nort and Karp entered the tavern and looked for a boisterous young man. No one they saw with a mug of ale could be considered anything but somber. Some patrons stared in their drinks and slowly sipped, while others sat discussing their pasts and futures. Karp and Nort approached the bartender.
˝i need a courier.”
The man jumped, almost as if he had watched them approach but didn't notice them appear.
˝He's in the back. People are getting upset that he's getting rich bringing tourists to the Grain Fort, so don't mention it...to anyone.”
The bartender pointed to the door on the far wall. Two men and a woman sat inside drinking, joking, and laughing. The loudest one sat with his feet on the table, leaning back in his chair, holding a mug, and telling a probably fictitious story.
˝...and so I said to her, 'I have a dragon in the back if you want to see it!’”
His cronies laughed, but all three fell silent at the sight of the strangers.
Karp walked up and lowered her hood.
˝i've heard you've been to the grain fort.”
˝We all have.”
The courier winked at Karp. She kicked his foot off the table, and his foot hit the ground. He winced and grabbed his knee.
˝do i have your attention?”
˝If you wanted to see my dragon too...”
Karp's whip snaked through the courier's legs, and the blade cut off the chair's back right leg. The strap shot around and took out the left two legs. The whip rebounded into Karp's hand, and the man slowly fell to the ground. His friends turned white, and the woman at the table spoke.
˝Do you know who that is? She killed The Sunflower and forced The Mandrake to flee... She's killed a half dozen people since.”
The courier quickly sobered. He sat up and looked at Karp.
˝What do you want?”
˝tell me about the grain fort.”
˝What's there to tell? One day it was business as usual, and the next day everybody disappeared. Within a few days, someone took almost everything in the fort, and it started to appear in stores.”
˝why are you bringing people there?”
˝Just because people want to go. I make up stories about what happened, like the story about the dragon I joked about earlier. I'm just doing it for the money, that's all!”
˝i'm going there tomorrow, don't bring any customers; you can start again in two days, got it?”
The courier nodded. Karp and Nort went to the bartender and paid for the broken chair and lodge and board for two days.
Karp and Nort arrived at the Grain Fort early in the morning. A tall wooden wall anchored in a rock bed encircled the compound. Nort and Karp entered the Grain Fort's open main gate. Small guard sheds stood just inside, and a four-story wooden keep dominated the fort's interior. Brown wheat stalks embellished the bottom of yellow wood siding. A small stable sat adjacent to the keep.
The fort's most unique features were two four-story grain silos. One silo stood near the northern wall, and one silo stood near the eastern wall. Spiraling stairs almost reached to the silo's top. Small hatches were dotted along the staircase to give people access to the stores without draining the whole silo. Pulleys allowed workers easy access to the openings. Karp felt around the ground outside the eastern silo and picked up a handful of dirty wheat.
˝nort, try to open that little door.”
Karp pointed to a door at the base of the grain silo. Nort walked over, and Karp backed away. He opened the door. His eyes darted around inside, and he stuck in his head and shouted.
The cry rang throughout the empty silo. A cacophony of calls shouting “echo” returned to the door, and the echo's intensity surprised Nort.
˝i thought it would be, and it would have been obvious if it wasn't.”
Nort didn't understand.
˝you'd be covered in an avalanche of wheat if it wasn't empty.”
Nort was upset at being tricked again.
˝don't be mad, you'd have been fine. probably.”
Karp and Nort passed the keep on their way to the northern grain silo. Something inside the stables stirred the hay lying on the floor. Karp and Nort moved onto the balls of their feet, and Karp drew her dragon fire dagger while sneaking to the stable's entrance. They flanked the door. Karp relayed her plan to Nort with hand signals. Nort nodded and rolled into the doorway with his shield drawn. Karp jumped behind him with a dagger in one hand and a throwing knife in the other. A malnourished mare with thin skin stretched across its face stood before them. The horse didn't recognize them but wasn't bothered by them either.
˝How do you think it got here?”
˝i don't know. it probably just returned here on instincts.”
˝How did it even survive?”
˝i guess it ate whatever grain it found on the ground.”
Karp sheathed her dagger and knife. Nort swung his shield onto his back. They continued to the second silo, which was nearly identical to the eastern silo except that dried rice sat in the dirt instead of wheat. Karp opened the door this time, and this silo was also empty. Karp and Nort proceeded to the keep.
There was no sign that anyone had ever lived inside. Someone had removed every ornament and fixture from the antechamber except for a pair of wooden benches affixed to the wall. Every room on the first floor only held dirt and dust mixed on bare floors. An oversized wardrobe sat in the kitchen’s corner. The piece of furniture presumably remained because there would have been no practical way for thieves to carry out such a massive wooden item.
Karp and Nort moved on to the second floor, which housed the lord and his family's bedrooms. The rooms sat empty, similar to every place on the first floor. Fixtures, clothing, and valuables had been sold off for an unknown reason. Dust sat in corners and was smeared along some of the walls. The minor lord had used the third floor for storage. Dust covered the rooms, and spider webs hung in every corner. The third floor acted as a buffer between the servant's quarters on the fourth floor and the lord's family on the second floor. The servants’ quarters still housed several beds, but straw mattresses on light wooden frames were practically worthless. Nort and Karp headed to the basement.
Chalky white dust covered the basement. Karp put her hand on the ground and examined her fingertips. A bright white powder coated her hand and not a dull gray powder like she expected. Three sides of the basement had plaster with small cracks. Several sections of those walls had been resurfaced at different times, creating a mosaic of different shades of gray. The unblemished fourth wall had no breaks. The jarring uniform color almost glowed when compared to the other three walls. Karp walked over and slid her hand across the smooth wall.
Explosions rang from the first floor. Karp turned her back from the wall to face the booms. Another burst rang out from her right and then another from her left. Explosions continued in three directions. They grew louder and fiercer. Then, there was a loud crack behind Karp, and everything went black.
Something wiggled on Karp as she regained consciousness. Something was pinning her to the ground. No matter how hard she pushed, she couldn't budge. She screamed for Nort but heard no response. Movement around her increased, and she shouted louder. Soon the crushing weight eased, and she stood. Debris fell as she rose.
˝Are you alright?”
Karp recognized Nort's voice in the pitch-black basement.
˝hold on a minute.”
A lit torch appeared in Karp's hand, and the basement filled with light. Karp looked to the impassible debris-filled stairwell. Then, she looked down, and her heart sank. It was dried husks of bodies that had pinned her to the floor. The corpses now were strewn around the floor. Karp thought she knew what had happened but asked anyway.
˝what happened here?”
˝You were looking at that suspicious wall when there were explosions all around the first floor. The plaster cracked and then came down. Bodies spilled out all over you. The explosions continued until the manor started collapsing, and when that happened, the stairwell filled with debris, and it became pitch black. I've been moving bodies around trying to find you, but it was hard in the dark.”
˝how long was i out for?”
˝I don't know. Could have been twenty minutes, could have been an hour.”
˝we need to find an exit.”
A second torch appeared in Karp's hand, and they searched the basement's perimeter. There were no windows, doors, or stairs. Karp waded through the hundred corpses stacked in the basement's center. A slight breeze emanated from where some of the bodies sank into the floor. The pair cleared the husks and found a smashed grate, which led into a drainage channel. Karp felt that taking the passage was worth any risk and dropped into the ditch, landing about five feet under the basement floor.
Wooden planks supported the walls and prevented cave-ins. One hundred yards into the walk, the walls turned from wood to stone.
˝we must be at the fort's main wall.”
Nort nodded. In twenty yards, Karp and Nort walked through ankle-deep water. In another thirty yards, they reached the entrance while wading through shin-deep water. Karp and Nort quickly walked through snapped and gnarled iron bars at the mouth of the tunnel. The fort’s drainage system fed into a small river. They snuck up to the fort’s outer wall and hugged it until they reached the road. The large gate leading into the fortress remained ajar. Karp risked walking out in the open to enter. She reached a small guard shack and jumped inside. She peered out of a window in the rear of the hut. The keep had completely collapsed between the time they had entered the tunnel and arrived at the shack.
˝if they had kept attacking, we'd be goners.”
Nort smirked and shrugged. Karp focused on the open fields, but no one lingered. Karp and Nort moved from the shack and approached the ruins. Karp stopped at a pair of dismembered legs, drew her whip, and stalked around the ruins. The courier's body from the chest up lay on the other side. Two other corpses dotted the field behind the keep. The grass was scorched, and flames had burned the remaining body parts beyond recognition. Karp was numb to the sight of corpses, but Nort was affected by all the death he was seeing. He turned to say something but stopped and gazed skyward. He raised his arm and limply pointed to the horizon.
Karp faced toward the village and scanned the landscape. Pillars of smoke waved in the sky. Karp sprinted toward the town, and Nort followed. Even at full stride, it took half an hour to reach the first house in the outskirts. A dragon sat atop the inn, breathing fire down onto the roofs of nearby homes. Karp and Nort darted between burning houses. Smoke concealed their movements from the raging dragon. They hid next to one of the few unburnt houses near the inn, but the dragon took flight and landed on the roof of the one-story house sheltering Karp and Nort.
Nort rushed into the road, and the dragon whipped its head toward him. Nort stopped and spread his arms and legs. The dragon immolated the whole area, but its flames broke and fanned out behind Nort. Karp jumped from the side of the building and threw the whip's blade into the air, and it stuck in the dragon's left front upper thigh. The dragon reared and crashed through the house's roof. Karp ran in front of the building. Nort recovered and looked behind him.
A young mother and father were clutching the arms of a seven-year-old. The father took the child in his arms and ran.
˝use the smoke and buildings for cover.”
As Karp yelled to the retreating family, the dragon thrust its head through the wall, and flames leaped between its nostrils. Nort charged and smashed the side of the dragon's face with his shield and drove it into the ground using his back and shoulders. The dragon shot flames, but they only burnt and splintered the earth. The dragon bucked to free itself from the house and threw Nort through the air. Karp threw a yellow knife at the dragon's face. The blade slashed across the dragon's forehead but didn't do enough damage for the beast to even notice. It took to the air again, and the force of the dragon's wings collapsed the house.
Karp hurried to Nort, who gingerly rose. He wasn't bleeding, but a large section of chainmail had been ripped from his hauberk. The dragon looped through the air and swooped down to make a pass at Nort and Karp. Nort pushed Karp away, and she ran. The dragon shot fire at her while it swooped. Karp barely dived out of the way in time and disappeared behind a building. The dragon came back around and flew toward Nort.
The fire breath struck him square on, but instead of burning him to cinders, the flames momentarily immolated his armor and then gently dissipated. The next time the dragon dive-bombed, Nort threw a piece of rubble at its face. The dragon snapped at the debris. On the next round, Nort threw another piece of trash the same as the first. The dragon caught the debris with its mouth, bit down, and spat out the splintered wood and iron.
The dragon made another pass, but this time Nort threw a pop-gourd. As the dragon opened its mouth, a yellow streak came from the side and struck the gourd. The gourd cracked, then shattered and released a bright flash. The dragon flew into the ground, skidded, and rolled into a nearby burning house. The dragon thrashed until it regained its senses and found its footing. Then, it staggered forward. The Scorpion's whip bit the top of the dragon's neck, just below the jaw. The dragon jumped, spread its wings, and shot into the air. The water dragon steel dagger didn't rise with the beast; instead, the blade cut down the neck until it finally dislodged. The dragon continued to fly but lost strength and fell, even as its wings were still beating.
Blood and fire leaked from the creature's neck, and the dragon smashed into the road one last time. The reign of destruction ended with the beast whimpering alone on the ground and quietly closing its eyes.
Luckily, the only building that served warmed, seasoned food was mostly spared. Karp and Nort sat in the tavern eating a meager meal, but the tavern's somber mood had become dire. Most villagers that lived near the inn were homeless after the dragon had razed their cottages. Dozens of families now had to stay at the inn. However, the fourth floor was unusable because the dragon had collapsed the roof, and the first floor had no beds, so all the families had to squeeze into two stories. The inn's owner turned no one away for lack of coin but would still probably be rich by the time the village recovered. The shop owner had also avoided severe loss, and villagers were already approaching him for loans. Karp had her doubts that he wouldn't charge usurious rates. He would likely be rich enough to become the new lord by the end of everything.
All eyes in the room stared at Karp and Nort while they ate. Some eyes held gratitude for saving the majority of the village. Some eyes held fear and wonder about the people who were strong enough to kill a dragon. Some eyes held suspicion over the coincidental appearance of these strangers and the destruction of their fort and village. Most eyes, however, just appeared in a stupor from the presence of all these emotions at once.
Nort spoke to Karp in a low voice, but Karp was sure the villagers wouldn't understand the conversation even if they heard every word.
˝So, what do you think happened at the fort?”
˝i don't know. the most likely scenario is that the courier and his cronies are down-shifters, and they used powers to try and bring down the keep around us but changed that horse into a dragon. they stopped bringing down the keep when the dragon attacked, but they were outmatched and killed in the struggle. the dragon then flew off after the fight and wanted to make its home in the inn.”
˝That's what I think too. Kind of funny, being saved by a dragon like that and then having to kill it. What do you mean 'most likely scenario'?”
˝i can think of a few possibilities. at least one where we weren't even the targets.”
˝Really? How so?”
˝well, maybe someone didn't want people poking around the keep, so they hired the courier and his friends to bring them there, murdered them in horrible ways to make an example, and damaged the keep beyond repair. they left unaware that we were even in there and possibly even unaware they had created a dragon. or maybe the dragon was a diversion for something else.”
It never occurred to Nort that all this destruction possibly had nothing to do with them. The implication that the real perpetrators were still alive and possibly in the tavern was far more worrisome.